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Magical MarxismA magical mystery tour

Review by Phil Sharpe

Andy Merrifield’s Marxism is based on the hope of a better future and is motivated by the rejection of the pessimistic and defensive standpoint of theorists like Hebert Marcuse who could not contemplate the possibility of opposition to capitalism.

It is, instead, inspired by the cultural analysis of Guy Debord and the literature of Latin America in order to encourage a poetic imagination of the possibility to combine the future with mystery and by action make it real.

Says Merrifield: “Marxism has a prodigious magical power to invent, to create its own values and ethics – an ethics higher, better and more durable than the hollow values that insist upon the sacrosanctity of free market individualism. Marxism, in short, has the power of struggle, of struggling to invent what Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire deemed a new poetry of the future.”

Merrifield rejects much of past Marxism as defensive and concerned with understanding capitalism rather than changing the system. This emphasis is blamed on the role of theory, science, method and dogma. The result has been the ignoring of the role of the imagination and concern with the future.

His politics of transformation is based on the combination of poetry and the future, of how being can develop as becoming and of how fantasy can overcome the limits of objective reality and invent a new real. What is being argued for is the realisation of the pleasure principle as opposed to the cold rationality of the reality principle.

If it is possible for the ruling class to invent a new world in its image and interests then it must also be possible for the oppressed of the world to invent a new future based on hope and anticipation and to make it real. Marxism should no longer be concerned with trying to indicate the truth of the essence behind the appearance because this is a false quest.

Instead, it should be trying to invent new truths that connect fantasy with desire and hope.
The aim of “magical Marxism” is not to support the traditional view of working class liberation but is about developing the solidarity needed in order to sustain the fantasy of the future.

Capitalism represents the limits of reality which the aspirations of imagination are constantly trying to overcome: “Marx’s time honoured goal is no longer a workplace affair: it’s a question of reclaiming the totality of everyday life – of work life and daily life of filling it with joy and magic, with play and collective struggle, with dream and imagination, with a poetry of the future.”

The author’s concern with the power of the imagination is not misplaced. Only with visualisation can we contemplate a future that is not restricted by the limitations of the present. Without imagination we can only envisage the eternity of the present and accept the role of class domination as being beyond the possibility of change and transformation.

However does that mean that we should make a contrast between Marxism as science and poetry? It could be argued that the very importance of Marxism as a science of society is that it can establish an understanding of its causal mechanisms and processes and so develop a conception of the strategy of transformation of the present into a different future.

In contrast, if Marxism is conceived exclusively as a form of magic, mystery, poetry and fantasy the relation of the imagination to the real can lack consistency and coherence. Primarily the issue of how to transform fantasy into the real can be considered as lacking in material pre-conditions and a relationship to historical development.

This was precisely Marx’s criticism of many of the utopian socialists of his era. They were able to utilise their imagination in order to envisage a future that was different to the limitations of capitalism but were unable to explain the precise character of the transition from the present to a different form of society. This meant they were unable to develop credible strategies of change.

Marx argued that what we should aspire to realise is an expression of what is already located within reality and so represents a potential for actualisation. Hence imagination is not conceived as fantasy and instead is theoretically and practically grounded in terms of what is happening within reality.

The conception of communism requires a leap of imagination because it is a type of society that is entirely different to capitalism. In this context, theory and science do not reduce imagination to the limitations of mundane reality and instead elaborate how communism is both entirely different to the present and yet is an outcome of the process of historical development.

The perspective of communism establishes the connection between science, reason and reality with the aspirations of the imagination. Communism is the hope of the future that is never entirely suppressed and vanquished because of the very limitations of capitalism. Marxism is not acting as a science and is instead reduced to critique if it cannot contemplate a future beyond capitalism.

Merrifield argues that literature can stimulate support for an alternative future in contrast to the methodological limitations of the Marxist preoccupation with the contradictions of capitalism. He is arguing for making a choice between the utopian themes of Marxism and its role as a science of society.

To the extent that he is describing accurately the condition of Marxist theory he is making a powerful point. But is the alternative the approach of “magic Marxism”? It could also be argued that what is necessary is a development of Marxist theory and the overcoming of the limitations of critique.

What is called for is the establishment of the connection of Marxism as a method with the perspective of a different future, or the elaboration of Marxism as a strategy of change and advocacy of the aspirations of the imagination and the hope for a different future. This task will not be advanced by Merrifield’s rejection of Marxism as a science.

If Marxism is to become a confident theory that is able to connect concerns with the present to the prospects of a different future it will have to develop as a strategy. Indeed it could be argued that Marxism was negative and defensive because it no longer upheld the traditional justification of the revolutionary role of the working class and yet was unable to replace this strategy with a more effective perspective.

The answer of Merrifield to this problem is to address this strategic dilemma with the standpoint of the importance of the imagination and hope in the future. However this merely displaces the importance of strategy onto the future. He effectively understands this flaw by arguing that people are trying to develop alternative means of organisation and activity in the present such as the development of communes.

But he is unable to explain how these communes will be anything more than a peripheral form of self-organisation within global capitalism. Hence his strategic flaws indicate a problem at the level of imagination in connection to the relation of the present to the future.
Furthermore, his dilemmas are intensified in that he is also arguing that his aim is not political power or the establishment of control over the workplace. His aim seems to be to by-pass global capitalism rather than the development of an attempt to undermine the domination of global capital.

This strategic dilemma is connected to his rejection of the strategic role of the working class and his failure to replace this strategic conception with one that is more contemporary and profound. Instead we have an impression of a disparate collection of individuals coming together in order to utilise their imagination for change. This is defined as the role of the city replacing the workplace as the agency of change. The question of what unites the different people within a city is not addressed.

Marx still provides an alternative in terms of the conception of alienated labour. It is the persistence of alienation at work and within society that provides an impetus for people to strive for a non-alienated condition. Alienation is the revolutionary connection between the limitations of the present and the impetus for its transcendence in the aspiration to realise a society without alienation.

In his rejection of the significance of the distinction between form and content or appearance and essence, Merrifield effectively dismisses alienation. The domination of the image as the real means that what is important is not the transformation of the social relations of alienated labour. It is about providing alternative images that can realise the aspirations of the imagination in a more satisfactory manner.

The struggle to transform capitalism remains at the level of image. And this struggle can be abstracted from the importance of production and converted into one that takes place in terms of changing the process of consumption.

But what is not explained is how diverse individuals with different patterns of consumption can be united in order to oppose the domination of capital. Collective action is reduced to that of distinct forms of separate protest. What is absent is a strategy for  developing the discontent of alienated labour into the realisation of a different society.  

7 July 2011

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Magical Marxism: subversive politics and the imagination. Andy Merrifield, Pluto Press £17.99

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